The small-s/Big-S distinction and its relation to the structure of père-version

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

I am writing this blog to clarify the implications of the distinction between the small-s symbolic and the big-S Symbolic which is present in a number of previous blogs:

This small-s/big-S distinction relates to the issue of the perverse discourses and what they imply about their underlying Borromean structuring. This elaboration of the nature of the perverse discourses allows us to speak about the way individuals use organisations’ structuring of their roles (i.e. support to their identifications) as a way of stabilising the otherwise inherently unstable structure of a perverse discourse. Crucial here is the ethical challenge that the perverse discourses present for the subject, given Lacan’s reminder that a neurosis is a failed père-version (Lacan’s Seminar XXII – RSI, 18th February 1975)… i.e. “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it” aka “if it works for me, why should I change it?”.

The small-s/Big-S distinction
The issue of the small-s/big-S distinction only arises when we stop considering speech in the moment in which it is spoken. This relates to the objectification of a social big Other as a way of organizing meaning, usually reflecting Power/Knowledge practices of meaning [1] that seek to secure others’ obedience to those practices. The effect is to reduce signifiers (representing a subject for another signifier) to signs (representing something for someone).
Here is Lacan in Radiophonie responding to Question 1 (1970, “Radiophonie.” Scilicet 2(3)):

Saussure and the Prague Circle founded a new linguistics, and they founded it on a cut. This cut is the bar placed between the signifier and the signified. Its purpose is to bring into prominence the difference that constitutes the signifier absolutely …. There are some who have wanted to extend this success to the entire symbolic network. They will admit a meaning only where the network guarantees it; they recognize effects but not contents. This was the promise created by the cut that inaugurated the new linguistics.
The question was whether or not the signified could be studied scientifically. This was thought to depend on whether the field of the signifier was, by its very material, distinct from any physical field as defined by science. This necessitated a metaphysical exclusion — this being understood as a désêtre, a de-being. No signification could henceforth be taken to be self-evident …
At the risk of being offensive I shall get right to the point. The term semiotics has undergone several redefinitions; notwithstanding, it refers to any discipline which begins with the sign taken as an object. My own definition of the sign (as representing something for someone) shows it to be an obstacle to the grasp of the signifier (defined as representing a subject for another signifier).
The sign presupposes the someone to whom one makes a sign of something. The shadow of this someone obscured the entry into linguistics. Whatever you call this someone, there is no way around the silliness implicit in this notion. The sign of itself, taken as object, permits the someone to appropriate language as though it were a simple tool. The sign makes language the basis of abstraction and the means of discussion. This leads to the “progress” of thought in which the goal is criticism.

The following extract from Driver’s paper on the lack (Driver 2009, “Struggling with Lack: A Lacanian Perspective on Organizational Identity.” Organization Studies 30(1): 55-72) shows an example of the difficulty that follows from not sustaining Lacan’s distinction in relation to his oeuvre. Language and discourse become objectified as a (small-s) symbolic order, the structure of which is spoken of as having been imposed on every individual prior to birth. This objectification separates this symbolic order from the subject of an enunciation:

Language and discourse in turn constitute the symbolic order, the structure imposed on every individual prior to birth through social conventions handed down for generations. What remains of the primal subject is only the act of submersion in the symbolic order, the unconscious trauma of the loss of primal fulfillment. As such, that which truly and uniquely marks the person is a loss or lack. This lack cannot be filled in the symbolic order because it is marked by lack or loss due to the existence of the real, i.e. the physical, bodily, undifferentiated primal subject prior to language.

The founding assumption about the nature of lack thus becomes that which an objectified (small-s) symbolic order leaves out about the subject per se… it is more about lack as arising from structural ‘holes’ in the (small-s) symbolic structurings of difference and certainly not about the subject’s originating relation to the lack of the (big-S) Symbolic Other aka the S(barred-A) of the upper level of the graph of desire[2]. Not surprisingly therefore in this example, Driver goes on to speak of alienation by this (small-s) symbolic order, an alienation arising from this symbolic order existing independently of the subject:

As we engage in conscious discourse, articulating the self, trying to express our desires, we are alienated by a symbolic order in which we can articulate who we are and what we want only in the words of others. Yet we are unable to jettison or move beyond this order. Therefore, we continue to experience alienation and otherness in our self-constructions and are unable to satisfy our desires. Put differently, the immediate experience of the world and the return to the original state of wholeness and fulfillment we long for is always missing in how we articulate the self and its desires. So all we are left with are articulations that are not us, somehow removed and importantly continuously lacking.

The sinthome
This objectification is inherently unstable as an attempt by the subject to make ‘truth’ the agent of the true. These are the perverse forms of the discourses – capitalism, science, politics and movement[3]. The Borromean link to these perverse discourses comes in Lacan’s Seminar XXIII, 18th November 1975, with reference to an untied RSI:

Ιt is indeed here, it is indeed here that there lies the following: that it is an error to think that it is a norm for the relationship of three functions which only exist from one another in their exercise in the being who, by this fact, believes himself to be man. It is not the fact that the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real are broken that defines perversion. It is that they are already distinct, and that one must suppose a fourth which is the symptom on this occasion. That what constitutes the Borromean link must be supposed tο be tetradic, perversion only means turning towards the father, (version vers le père) and that in short the father is a symptom or a sinthome, as you wish. The ex-sistence of the symptom is what is implied by the very position, the one that supposes this enigmatic link of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real.
lf you find somewhere, l already drew it, something which schematises the relationship of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real, qua separated from one another. you have already, in my previous figurations, with their relationship flattened out, the possibility of linking them by what? By the sinthome.

Here is an example of the 4th sinthomatic link rendering the previous 3 separate rings into a Borromean chain (taken from Lacan’s Seminar XXIV, 15th February 1977):
What is interesting to me about Lacan’s reference to the “ex-sistence of the symptom” is that these may be taken as the structuring/over-determining effects of the structures referred to earlier, structures that are themselves constituted by the practices of the objectified social big Other.[4] These effects are what can stabilize what would otherwise be an unstable form of the quadripod.

Note that this quadripod is the structure of the discourse itself – i.e. the four positions around which the S1, S2, a and $ rotate.[5] The perverse form that Lacan is referring to is its unstable form.[6] This 4-ring chain being able to be presented as itself being toric, consistent with the toric nature of the quadripod itself[7]:

A final point would be to emphasise the importance of not conflating the role of the fourth sinthomatic ring in neurotic or psychotic formations with the form it takes in a perverse formation, which depends on the prior establishment of a neurotic or psychotic form from which it is derived.[8]

[1] A reference to the ‘objects’, ‘concepts’, ‘themes’ and ‘enunciative modalities’ of discursive practices in Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Brighton, UK, The Narvester Press.
[2] Found at p817 in Lacan, J. (2006[1966]). The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York, W.W. Norton & Company: 671-702.
[3] The discourse of the movement is referred to in Television (Lacan, J. (1990) Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment. London, W.W. Norton & Company) as PIPAAD (Professional Indemnity Plan Against Analytic Discourse) in English, and as SAMCDA (Societe d’Assurance Mutuelle Contre le Discours Analytique) in French.
[4] This social small-s symbolic big Other is best understood as an Althusserian big Other, to distinguish it from the radically unconscious big-S Symbolic Other which is lacking in a way that the Althusserian big Other is not (‘lack’ here not to be confused with undecidability).
[5]The quadripod, described in Lacan’s 3rd Feb 1972 unpublished seminar XIX: Le Savoir du Psychanalyste:

has the topology of the Klein bottle with a handle. This is related to the graph of desire (footnote [2] above) in the March 21st 1962 ‘Identification’ seminar (Lacan, J. (2002[1961-62]). Book IX: Identification. London, Karnac):

which itself articulates the subject’s double subjection in the relation between the two ‘levels’ of the graph. This is important because it is the distinguishing characteristic of the Lacanian understanding of discourse with its elaboration of the possible ways of taking up double subjection.
[6] The reason for 8 discourses (adding capitalism, science, movement, politics), rather than 4, is that there are two possible ways of arranging the quadripod, both conserving the 1-2-3 cycle, i.e. the agency-work-production triangle characterising the subject’s particular relation to Das Ding.  Thus the left-hand one below establishes the circular path of the “circle which is broken” around its outer edges, described by Lacan in his unpublished March 17th, 1971 seminar XVIII: On a discourse that might not be a semblance:

The importance of this “circle which is broken” appears in the May 16th 1962 Seminar IX: Identification (London, Karnac) as the importance of the hole in a surface, the ‘rim’ in the drive structure. The right-hand quadripod, however, corresponds to the form Lacan introduces in Lacan-in-Italy (Lacan, J. (1978) La Salmandra: 32-55), describing the relation between the discourses of the Master and of Capitalism, in which the quadripod’s left-hand red and green positions are switched. This second form, he says, is headed for a blowout (in the instance of the discourse of capitalism): “This is because it is untenable… a little inversion between the S1 and $… that consumes itself so that it is consumed.” See the structure of a Lacanian discourse.
[7] I mention this because of the parallel toric nature of the relation between the place of an organisation and its ecosystem in On being edge-driven: inside is outside. This too involves the sinthomatic linking of three toric surfaces – the relation to value deficit, ‘big data’ and possible behaviors.
[8] This distinction between neurotic and psychotic formations depends on whether the fourth sinthomatic ring is linking the untied RSI or an RSI in which the Real and the Symbolic are already directly linked to each other. See in the Nebohood of Joyce and Lacan.

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